Moral Vanity

One of the great challenges in running for office is the necessity to sell one’s virtues to the voting public while also, paradoxically, maintaining an aura of humility.  People tend not to admire political figures (or non-political figures) who come off as a trifle too self-regarding, and yet it is the nature of campaigning to explain to everyone how wonderful you are.

Gabriel Gomez, the Republican candidate in the special election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, is finding it especially difficult to square this particular circle.

For a while, any great interest in the race to replace John Kerry in the Senate appeared to be one more casualty of the Boston Marathon bombing.  The party primaries were held two weeks after the attack, and attention was severely limited.  The candidates, for their part, made themselves relatively scarce, with the myriad angles of the Marathon’s aftermath sucking all the oxygen from the room.

Now, with the nominees chosen and the general election scheduled for June 25, the campaign has proceeded full steam ahead, and any fears that this would turn into a sober, issues-based affair have been duly squashed over the past couple of days.

The particular spat that has gotten the nastiness rolling—uninteresting except for what it reveals about the players involved—began with an advertisement by the Democratic candidate, Ed Markey, which assailed his opponent, Gomez, for involving  himself with a group that accuses President Obama of politicizing the killing of Osama bin Laden.  For several seconds of this ad, an image of Gomez sits on the left side of the screen while one of bin Laden floats in from the right.

Team Gomez, testing the general gullibility of Massachusetts voters, ran a TV spot in response saying Markey’s ad “compared [Gomez] to bin Laden.”  In an interview, Gomez himself continued the thought by postulating that, in doing so, Markey was “pond scum.”

And the tone of the race was set.

What lends this silly campaign flash point an added level of intrigue is Gomez’s distinction as a retired Navy SEAL.  He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served as an aircraft carrier pilot before joining the SEALs, where he rose to be a platoon commander.  His military career totaled 13 years before he moved on to his current vocation as a businessman.

It is a highly impressive background, by any standard.  As a Senate candidate, Gomez would be crazy not to underline it as a demonstration of his physical fortitude and dedication to his beloved country.

The question, then, is when to stop.  To recognize the point at which promoting one’s history of service begins actually to hamper, rather than help, one’s campaign.

In reacting to Markey’s supposed “comparison” of bin Laden to him, Gomez phrased his disgust thusly:  “To put me next to bin Laden?  A former SEAL—maybe he doesn’t realize who actually killed bin Laden.  The SEALs did.”

We have seen this rhetorical sleight-of-hand before:  I served in the U.S. Armed Forces; therefore, anything I do or say relating to the military is axiomatically beyond reproach, and any related criticism by my opponent is beyond the pale.

During the 2008 presidential race, columnist George Will coined the term “moral vanity” to describe this attitude as it applied to Senator John McCain—the idea that one’s particular background on a particular issue cannot possibly be questioned, and especially not by those who lack the same experience themselves.

This is a decidedly unattractive quality to possess, as it would seem to rule out any honest debate on a given subject right at the outset.  After all, if one candidate has such moral superiority about this or that issue, why trouble ourselves arguing over it?  Why can’t Candidate B just accept Candidate A’s inherent rightness and move on?

Further—to my initial point—the person who commits such transgressions against intellectual openness tends ultimately only to inflict political harm upon himself, by creating the impression of having drunk one’s own Kool-Aid, and thus lacking the modesty and self-doubt that are essential in building good character and a good leader.

Gabriel Gomez served an honorable Naval career, of which everyone ought to be made aware and no one has any cause to put down.  Of the rightness of his views on the issues—military and otherwise—well, let us be the judges of that.

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